Obituaries: Vangelis, Greek composer best known for the score of Chariots of Fire
Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou – or Vangelis as film soundtrack enthusiasts around the world call him – was an uneducated musical researcher whose 50-year career encompassed cosmic concept albums, international space agency commissions and the occasional classic. pop. But the Greek composer, who died of heart failure at the age of 79, remains best known for his atmospheric electronic film score for Chariots Of Fire, which spawned a thousand slow-motion sports clips, and the soundtrack without perhaps most influential Blade Runner, whose director Ridley Scott described Vangelis as “the soul of the film”.
His first international success came alongside fellow Greek music icon Demis Roussos as a member of progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, as he flirted with the pop charts in collaboration with Yes frontman Jon Anderson, co -writing the expansive I’ll Find My Way Home and State of Independence, which was later taken to greater creative heights by disco diva Donna Summer.
This musically prolific but personally private man pioneered melodic symphonic electronics, using synthesizers as an orchestra, but he adamantly rejected the New Age label sometimes given to him as an “opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music”.
Vangelis was born in the Greek coastal town of Agria and grew up in Athens. He started playing the piano at the age of four, eschewing any formal lessons over the years in favor of spontaneity and experimentation. “Music is not something that is written down,” he said of his lack of notational skills. “The music is immediate, wild, unpredictable, multidimensional.” During his teenage years, he played in school bands and soaked up jazz and rock influences alongside traditional Greek music. At 18, he was offered a Hammond organ which he painted gold, but it was the Yamaha synthesizer that would become his instrument of choice.
After a short stint in the rock band The Forminx, he composed his first film, My Brother, the Traffic Policeman, in 1963 and spent the following years producing other artists before moving to Paris in 1968, where he trains Aphrodite’s Child with other Greek expats. Roussos, Loukas Sideras and Anargyros “Silver” Koulouris.
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The band had some European success but their third album 666 – a double concept album on the Book of Revelation (it was the 70s, after all) – broke the band up. Vangelis produced material for Roussos’ solo career but wanted to satisfy his more esoteric tastes – his first solo album Make Your Dream Longer Than The Night was a sound collage inspired by the 1968 student riots.
His next stop was London, where he auditioned to replace Rick Wakeman in progressive rock behemoths Yes, but turned down the gig rather than go on extensive tours. Yes frontman Jon Anderson recalls their first meeting: “When I walked in he had a longbow and arrows, which he shot down the really big hallway. I explained he could kill someone. He just laughed that he was Greek. Although he dodged an arrow, Anderson praised his “instant good energy”, and later that decade the duo made several albums as Jon and Vangelis.
From Nemo Studios, dubbed his London “laboratory,” Vangelis produced a series of solo concept albums on subjects as diverse as the Tao philosophy and the Center Pompidou. A trio of wildlife documentary soundtracks by Frédéric Rossif became his calling card for wider recognition and he struck a creative chord with astronomer Carl Sagan, composing the soundtrack for the television series Cosmos: A Personal Sagan’s trip in 1980.
Soon after, he accepted a commission to compose the music for Eric Liddell’s biopic Chariots of Fire, lured by the opportunity to create an unconventional electronic score for a period drama. The soundtrack album topped the Billboard 200 chart and sold one million copies in the United States, and Vangelis won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Chariots of Fire may have received the awards, but its symbiotic score for Blade Runner is more ardently admired. The film was a slow success, but is now an acknowledged all-time classic, with Vangelis’ chilling music being as much a part of the film’s dystopian take on Los Angeles as the iconic visuals.
Vangelis teamed up with Scott again ten years later on 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Through a selective filmography, he has also worked with directors like Oliver Stone, Costa-Gavras and Roman Polanski. Meanwhile, concept albums continued to arrive, interspersed with theater and ballet scores and music for large-scale sporting events such as the 1997 World Championships in Athletics in Athens, the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, for which he composed the official theme, Anthem.
The following years were full of awards and honors – from organizations as diverse as the French Legion of Honor, the American Hellenic Institute and his hometown, the University of Thessaly. He was honored with his image on a Greek postage stamp, but one imagines he would have been most impressed by the fact that a minor planet, 6354 Vangelis, was named after him.
His music has also become interstellar. True to his lifelong love of cosmology, he composed the music for Stephen Hawking’s 2018 memorial, which was broadcast by the European Space Agency from Earth to the nearest black hole. His 2021 album From Juno to Jupiter, inspired by the Juno space probe, was the latest in a series of collaborations with Nasa and was to be Vangelis’ swan song. “For me, music is more of a science than an art,” he said. “It is the main code of the universe.”
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